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Biden Administration: Alternative Ways to Consider Race in College Applications

In June of this year, the Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 vote that universities in the U.S. can no longer use race as a factor during the admissions process. In other words, Affirmative Action admissions policies have now been rendered unconstitutional. However, the Biden administration has made it clear that universities can still consider ethnicities during admissions decisions within limits.

This new development has colleges struggling to accurately interpret and incorporate the Supreme Court decision in time for the new admissions cycle. According to the court, schools cannot use race, per se, as a factor in making admissions decisions, but can consider how race affects applicants' lives. Many institutions added new instruments and issued statements reaffirming their commitment to diversity on campus.

However, the questions remain, what does it entail when “ethnicity affects an applicant's life?” In a joint press release, the Departments of Education and Justice gave examples such as when a student becomes the first black violinist in their city’s youth orchestra, or how cooking has been a way for an applicant to reconnect with their roots. These subjective reflections that showcase an applicant's background and personality are still factors that admissions officers consider.

Despite the ruling, some students are still jumping at the chance to write essays about their ethnicity. A 17-year-old student at Bard High School in Baltimore named Janyra Allen is an African-American teen who wants to become a nurse one day. As she applies to the University of Maryland and Notre Dame, she wrote extensively about the lack of African American medical professionals in her local hospital. As she reflects on her experiences and boasts of her accomplishments, she wants colleges to know that “black students can do amazing things, too.”

Image source: NYT

In a lawsuit against Harvard University, the school has been accused of racial stereotyping Asian American applicants, arguing that they are highly accomplished but highly homogenized. Allison Zhang, a senior at a public high school in Maryland, said that on her application, she "has been talking about ethnic identity and gender because as an Asian American woman, it's a big part of how I see the world and the way to face difficulties.”

Image source: NYT

“In short, institutions of higher education remain free to take into account various student qualities or characteristics that affect university admissions decisions, such as grit, drive or determination, even if students compare these characteristics with their ethnic lived experiences are linked."

Biden administration officials have emphasized that schools can still pursue their goal of enrolling a diverse student body and can undertake targeted outreach and admissions initiatives. Universities can consider ethnicity, as well as other factors such as geographic location, financial resources and parental education, when developing such plans. For example, colleges could conduct admissions efforts directly at schools or districts populated by a majority of students of color or low-income students. The main limitation is prohibiting schools from preferring certain ethnic groups in the admissions process.

In a recent statement, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stated that “We know what happens in colleges and universities when individual states ban affirmative action.” He supports this with collated studies that show such moves lead to lower enrollments of students of color. Thus, emphasizing that "We cannot afford this kind of rollback across the country."

Miguel Cardona Source: NBC News

Furthermore, Cardona said that the government will publish a comprehensive report on "the most effective and promising strategies universities are using to legally produce diverse applicants and a diverse student body." However, he clarified as well that the government's advice is not a requirement and does not have the force of law.

In accordance with the new mandate, UNC has now formally banned race from being considered in admissions and hiring decisions. Board Chairman David Boliek Jr. said that admissions officers will review essays in a “color-blind” way, and college essay questions will still allow students to highlight their skills and attributes without explicitly mentioning ethnicity.

Image source: WSJ

What role will ethnicity play for this year's college applicants?

According to a study by Harvard, more than a dozen competitive colleges use phrases like “identity” and “life experience” in their essay titles to explore how aspects of a student's upbringing and background can "shape who you are."

To ameliorate the situation amidst their current lawsuit, Harvard has replaced their optional essay with five short essay questions designed to allow admissions committees to see each applicant as a "whole person." They emphasized that these 200-word essays are required so that the admissions officer can make an equal judgment on each applicant.

Johns Hopkins, on the other hand, says on its website: "Any part of your background, including but not limited to your ethnicity, can be discussed in an essay if you wish." However, it is with the following addendum: "Colleges only refer to how your ethnicity affects your life and personal experience."

Despite the sudden changes in the admissions process, one fact stil remains and that is it still a holistic review of a students abilities and potential. As such, there are other factors that a student could explore and focus on. Balancing each factor is necessary to illustrate a holistically strong candidate for admission. Doing so may require the guidance of a seasoned professional. At Enlighteens, our consultants are committed to helping students accentuate their strengths and land them a spot in the university that is best suited for them.

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